IOWA CITY, Iowa - Grit and determination can’t be measured on a stat sheet, but the University of Wisconsin is doing its best to showcase resiliency in the face of adversity.
Four games into a stretch without its senior point guard hasn’t stopped the Badgers from chalking up four impressive victories on their sparkling resume.
“It’s just us knowing what goals we have this year coming off last year’s success we had and knowing what we can obtain and what we want to,” said sophomore Nigel Hayes, “When we get on a run and we’re ready to make our push to open our game up, we’re always (saying) ‘go from good to great.”
Senior center Frank Kaminsky continued his march to Big Ten Player of the Year was a scintillating 24 points and nine rebounds and got plenty of help from his fellow starters in No.5 Wisconsin’s 74-63 victory over Iowa at Carver-Hawkeye Arena Saturday.
Wisconsin (19-2, 7-1 Big Ten) put four players in double figures and maintained a 1.5-game lead in the conference standings over Maryland, Michigan and Ohio State after completing the season sweep of Iowa (13-8, 4-4) for the second straight season.
“We’ve had that mentality the last couple years, the road-dog, road-warrior mentality,” said Gasser. “It’s us against everyone else in the building. That’s really when you show who you are as a team.”
It wasn’t quite as emphatic as Wisconsin’s 32-point blowout at the Kohl Center 11 days earlier, but the Badgers’ willingness to throw their weight around in the second half certainly spoke volumes.
After the Hawkeyes shot 64 percent and scored 22 of their 36 first-half points in the paint, Wisconsin shut down the interior, resulting in Iowa going 1-for-10 from the field over a 12 minute span and only scratching out 10 points in the paint.
Even more efficient was the Badgers allowing just seven second-chance points off seven offensive rebounds, switching screens and playing more aggressive to take Iowa out of its first-half rhythm.
“We hit a cold spell and … that could have been a time where they could have changed the tide,” said Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan. But it didn’t, so we kept plugging defensively. Kept getting it back.”
Aaron White led Iowa with 15 points, who for the second straight game in the series shot themselves out of the win column. After shooting 28 percent in the first half in Madison, Iowa –which shot 64 percent in the first half - finished at 30.4 percent in the second half.
“We just really wanted to buckle down that second half, just focus up more and really bring the energy,” said Gasser.
It wasn’t just the defense that made the difference either, as the early minutes of the second half began to follow a recent road script: a double-digit lead that started to be whittled away over time. The first instance cost Wisconsin its only conference loss at Rutgers. Last Saturday meant the Badgers had to play five more minutes before surviving against depleted Michigan.
So when Wisconsin’s 47-36 lead in the opening second-half minutes was cut to five, a stretch that saw the Badgers go 1-for-8 from the field with a turnover thrown in, there was a reason to be leery of the outcome. The Badgers weren’t, not in the least.
The Badgers drew fouls to get to the free throw line, grinded out possessions and threw a bit of flair in for good measure. Whether it was Hayes’ one-handed slam off an offensive rebound or Gasser’s killer 3-pointer with two seconds left on the shock clock, Wisconsin regained its 11-point lead and then some.
“If you look at last week against Michigan, we had an 11-point lead, they eventually chipped it down and came back to tie the game; we didn’t want that to happen again,” said Kaminsky, as the Badgers never trailed by fewer than eight the final 11:28. “We knew it in our mind that we had to get stops and convert on offense.”
“We were able to silence their crowd with some shots,” he added. “Josh hit a pretty crazy 3-pointer over in the corner that really gave us some momentum.”
Gasser’s 3-pointer might have been the biggest of UW’s buckets on its 13-4 run. Caught at the left wing with the shot clock at three, Gasser’s off-balanced 3-pointer with a defender at 8:47 in his face quieted the crowd moments after Iowa had cut the lead to 8.
“That’s something you work on all offseason, all throughout the year,” said Gasser. “A step-back fade-away 3 isn’t necessarily a great shot, but when the shot clock is running down and you have to make a play, that’s what you put the long hours of work in for to make those plays happen.”
Iowa’s problem during that stretch was a matter of not putting the ball in the basket. After shooting 64 percent in the first half, Iowa crumpled against Wisconsin’s size and failed to prevent the Badgers’ knockout punches.
In addition to Hayes’ slam and Gasser’s 3, Iowa could have cut the lead below eight after Aaron White’s 3-pointer at 2:57. After Kaminsky missed a shot-clock-beating 3-pointer, Dekker grabbed the offensive rebound (one of 15 in the game for UW) and Bronson Koenig made 1 of 2 free throws to keep the lead at arm’s reach.
“It’s a big point of emphasis, getting offensive rebounds if we can get a fresh shot clock rebounding our own misses,” said Kaminsky. “Sam came up with a huge offensive rebound at the end of the game…When we were on offense, we were just trying to grind them up and use as much shot clock as we could.”
It capped what started as a good shooting day for Wisconsin, as the Badgers shot 53.6 percent in the opening half, had all five starters hit a 3-pointer and commit only one turnover – an offensive foul in 26 possessions.
In the driver’s seat nearing the midway point of conference play, Gasser said the Badgers had to step up their game following Traevon Jackson’s foot injury, costing the senior up to six weeks of the season. Having already proven they can go to the next level, Gasser said the Badgers have a whole lot more they can give.
“We’re going to keep grinding, keep working every day,” said Gasser. “We have yet to play a great game. We’ve played a lot of good games, played some great halves, had some great stretches, but I think we can get a lot better the more we get to play together. Obviously once Trae gets back, that will take us also to the next level.”